In her third book of fiction, just recently released in paperback, Edwidge Danticat returns again to her native Haiti. She takes us back in time to comment on a tragic historical occurrence, the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians, working in their neighbor country, the Dominican Republic, and suddenly caught in a parsley-tinged meat grinder of nationalistic hatred. Though we get little insight into the machinations behind the killing, Danticat gives us an unflinching inside look at the terror of its victims.
Danticat's protagonist, Amabelle, is a young woman who has experienced her share of trauma long before we meet her, having watched her parents drown. She finds herself growing up as a servant in a wealthy Dominican household. Though she is not a slave, per se, her status, and that of all of the other Haitians there, is of such a class and race distinction, that it parallels the antebellum South in almost every way.
Amabelle is among the luckier ones, serving a woman, Seora Valencia, with whom she grew up. Bubbling under the story is the reality that the Senora loves her because of Amabelle's willingness to adhere to the unspoken social rules. They would be friends under no other circumstances.
Through Amabelle's love affair with Sebastian, a sugar-cane cutter from Haiti, the labor and pain of that profession is revealed. The title of the book comes from a colloquial phrase for cane cutting and is among much foreshadowing of doom. A book called The Farming of Bones, unless a mystery, is unlikely to have a happy ending.
When the killing starts, it is relentless. Amabelle escapes, but more because the book needs a narrator than as a figure of redemption. The depiction of genocide is powerful in a matter-of-fact way; Danticat lets Amabelle's descriptions speak for themselves, rendering them all the more powerful. The brutality is beyond reason, approaching the intensity of that in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Eventually, Amabelle is past shock. "I looked for my face in the tin ceiling above me," Amabelle tells us. "With everyone lying face up and with their bodies so close together, I couldn't tell which face was mine." And she goes downhill from there.
Ultimately, however, The Farming of Bones is a disappointment, especially because Danticat has shown such gifts for language and nuance in the past with her story collection Krik Krak. Perhaps it is Danticat's youth or closeness to the material -- she approaches it with too much gravity, to the point that her language is often pedantic and her transition graceless. She is so intent upon revealing this horror to the world that perhaps she loses track of the purpose of fiction.
Danticat's dialogue frequently fails: "You follow the stream up the mountains. There are grottos and caves to sleep in at night. This is how I came here again and again many times, in the beginning. When you come down from the mountain, you know where to cross the river? Very shallow in some places, that river. This time of year, it's most shallow near the bridge." This type of speech attempts to portray dignity and seriousness but is simply dull, approaching Tonto-like woodenness.
And many of the author's strained metaphors fail. "The dust was too much for Seora Valencia, I thought. She was breathing hard and fast as though a pillow full of rocks was being pressed down on her face." Why rocks? And: "... Whose roots stuck out of the ground like the entrails of crushed animals." Crushed belies this observation. The sloppiness and stiltedness of the language interrupt the flow throughout, resulting in a less engaging novel.
Fortunately, Danticat has the literary wherewithal to never try to tie everything up into a neat package. Observations like this one show she can tap into some universal truths: "I wanted to tell him he was right to run, brave even, that perhaps it was Joel's day to die, that there might have even been a worse death waiting for Joel in the slaughter. I wanted to say most of those things that never comfort the person hearing them, but only the one saying them."
Revealing large-scale crimes such as this massacre, and putting human faces on their victims, is a bold and worthy undertaking, but this one should have been executed with more distance and care. A writer as talented as Edwidge Danticat is capable of much better.